Happy Birthday, Whitney Houston! 40 Classic Photos of the Divine Diva

For Whitney Houston, it wasn’t a matter of if she’d become a superstar, but when. Her mother, Cissy, is a powerhouse gospel singer who toured with Elvis Presley and sang backup on Aretha Franklin records. Her cousin, Dionne Warwick, defied every expectation for a Black pop singer in the ’60s with crossover hits like “Walk on By” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” Born in 1963, Houston inhaled Chaka Khan records in her youth and sang in the choir at Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, where Cissy acted as musical director. Word quickly spread around town about Houston, the teenage girl with the octave-spanning voice of an angel.

“Being around people like Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, all these greats, I was taught to listen and observe. It had a great impact on me as a singer,” Houston once told a journalist. “Growing up around it, you just can’t help it. I identified with it immediately. It was something that was so natural to me that when I started singing, it was almost like speaking.”

Cissy made her daughter finish high school before pursuing a career in music, but once Houston signed with Arista Records, fame came swiftly. 1985’s Whitney Houston became the fastest-selling debut by a female artist in Billboard history, going on to move over 22 million copies. Bolstered by her innate charisma and raw talent, Houston earned a string of pop hits and was one of the first women of color to get frequent airplay on MTV during the channel’s most formative years. 

More multi-platinum albums and No. 1 singles followed, including a brief pause from music to pursue her Hollywood dreams in the ’90s. Critics may not have been particularly kind in their reviews of The Bodyguard, but Houston got the last laugh: Her acting debut was the second-highest grossing film of 1992 and spawned the best-selling soundtrack of all time.

Nearly a decade after Houston’s untimely death at age 49, her recordings are continually being discovered by new listeners; most recently, the Norwegian DJ Kygo built a Tropical house beat around Houston’s 1990 recording of “Higher Love,” turning it into the surprise hit of 2019. The documentary Whitney also afforded viewers an intimate glimpse of Houston’s life as both a chart-topping performer and a small-town Jersey girl—and with newcomer Naomi Ackie set to portray her in the forthcoming biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Houston’s legacy is in no danger of diminishing. 

In honor of Houston’s birthday, Vogue took a look through the archives to compile a photographic tribute to the one-of-a-kind diva.